The Minnesota native has surged to the front of the pack in 2013.
The leaders appeared from the mist at the U.S. Half-Marathon Championship in Duluth, Minn. — Adriana Nelson in 1:11:19, Desiree Davila at 1:11:26, Kelly Brinkman at 1:11:33, Stephanie … Wait, who?
Brinkman, 32, a full-time worker bee from Bloomington, Minn., was seven seconds behind the Olympian Davila, having just banked a mind-boggling seven-minute PR at the June race. Her previous half-marathon best of 1:18:10 was set on the same course the previous year. Had anyone been paying attention to her run-up to this race — a huge PR at 5K, from 17:45 to 16:02; PR at 8K, 26:33; and a speedy 1:10:02 20K — well, that person would have been less surprised. But still.
Blonde and about the same size as Meb Keflezighi, Brinkman was recruited out of Hutchinson, Minn. by Iowa State to run mid-distances, which she did year round at the expense of illness and injury. Upon graduating in 2003 with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, she gave up running for a year. Her love of the sport, though, drew her back.
Racing got in the way of running until she came within sniffing distance of the Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2:46 at the 2011 Twin Cities Marathon. The light went on. Eight weeks later, she ran a 2:45:15, and five weeks later was the Olympic Trials marathon.
Now she’s got a coach, national cred, some New Balance gear, and a small stipend from Luna, but Brinkman loves running too much to quit her day job. Brinkman’s ultimate goal is the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. Short term, she’ll run the Twin Cities Marathon in October with 2:40 in her sights.
How much do you love running?
I’m super passionate about it. It’s really freeing — all you need is a pair of tennis shoes, anywhere, any time. It’s like meditation: Other people do yoga, I run. I just like to crank it out and see what my body and mind can handle. This has led to things like a 24-hour adventure race a week before a marathon. I still struggle with overtraining, but I’m learning to dial it back a bit.
My boyfriend at the time was into adventure racing. It’s paddling, mountain biking, trekking, orienteering. I hadn’t ridden a bike since grade school but I like challenging myself, so I said, “Let’s give it a go.” It was really a perspective shift [coming from a mid-distance background] — if I can be out bushwhacking for 24 hours, I can certainly do a marathon. A lot of adventure racing is a mental game, and refusing to give up when things get tough is one of my strengths. I’m always going to fight for every place.
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That was a culmination of a lot of things. Back in the fall of 2012, I joined a club, MN RED, and hired a coach, Ron Byland, because I wanted to step up and play with the big girls at Boston [in 2013]. You know what they say — you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It was really hard for me to give up control and accept low intensity days in order to do super high-intensity stuff.
In January, I got H1N1 flu and pneumonia, had a disappointing race at Boston, and took an extended recovery. Then I started doing really good track workouts and using my speed like I hadn’t since college. I felt good in shorter races, I could see that the training was working and I gained the confidence not to look at my watch (I used to slow down or speed up based on what I thought I should be running). In Duluth, I had no clue about my pace — I just raced!
I wouldn’t mind cutting back at work [she’s up at 4:45 a.m. for the first and hardest training of the day, at work by 7:30, with another 4 to 8 miles after work], but I never want to be a professional runner. It would become work. My biggest fear is I would wake up in the morning and dread going for run. I want to be able to do a fun race, or get over a bad race without thinking, “Oh no, are sponsors going to drop me?” I want to keep the joy of running. It’s really gratifying to me that I’ve been able to run this well and still have a rich full life that doesn’t center on any one thing.
Did the Half-Marathon Championships change anything?
I still think of myself as an enthusiastic amateur, and I still get starstruck — “Oooh, there’s Shalane Flanagan!” I may be intimidated before the race, but I can switch that off and say, “Game on.” Chasing someone down is the best feeling in the world. I’m a nice person in real life, but on a racecourse, I’m ruthless.